HL Deb 17 April 2002 vol 633 cc984-1026

5.36 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

rose to call attention to the Green Paper Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change (published by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions); and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords., the next two and a half hours will offer noble Lords an opportunity to have their say on Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change now that the consultation period for the Green Paper has expired. It is a delight to be taking part in a debate alongside so many experts and practitioners in this vitally important sphere of our country's decision-making. Several noble Lords have indicated to me their very great interest in this debate despite the fact that prior arrangements have not allowed them to attend.

People get passionate about planning whether they are waiting for the decision on a new dormer window or a new large-scale development plan for a Brownfield site. Many years ago, as a local councillor in South Oxfordshire, many of our council deliberations were conducted in splendid isolation as far as the public were concerned or even cared. However, when it came to planning meetings, more chairs were always required. The Green Paper's conclusion is that our current system is deeply flawed and simply not delivering as it should for those very people.

Some might say that the modern planning system has served us well. Established in 1947, it indeed helped to guide vital post-war reconstruction. Since then, it has shaped the development and renewal of our towns and cities. It has protected our countryside and historic heritage. It has to some extent prevented urban sprawl. However, while planning policies have been successful for the most part, planning processes are now undoubtedly failing. There is a widespread perception that the current system is increasingly complex, bureaucratic and inflexible. There seem to be too many plans, too many of which are out of date and unco-ordinated. Decisions take too long to be arrived at. Too often, the system fails to engage adequately with the community it serves. In that context, I welcome the Green Paper's determination to set out major changes to the planning process, with the aim of speeding it up and making it more efficient.

Why is a radical overhaul required? Many will say that the current system lacks transparency and accountability, that there are too many tiers of decision-making, and that the slow rate of decision-making means that businesses are losing unacceptable sums. As Digby Jones, the CBI director-general has said, Our current system undermines UK competitiveness and discourages firms from expanding here. The present planning system is the best friend of Germany and France". Others will say of the need for fundamental change that there is now an urgent need to "upskill" and to build capacity within planning departments and among elected councillors in their task of dealing with applications. Better training and resource allocation are absolutely necessary, now.

Local plans are often over long, inflexible and out of step with national guidance. An architect friend of mine once made his case at an appeal he attended on the basis that his views entirely fitted with current government thinking and policy. He was told in no uncertain terms that that was all very well but that that was not the way they did things around there and was certainly not the view of the local planning committee.

Very few local authorities want the time, trouble and cost involved in updating their development plans. Since the start date of 1991 some of those plans have yet to appear. Current planning policy guidance notes are too prescriptive and complicated, totalling more than 850 pages. Those making applications often do not know what to expect from the system. Although local communities are consulted, they are not actively engaged in decisions; rather, the protracted system seems to favour organisations with deep pockets and the endurance to dig in for the long haul.

Finally, on the problems front, there are those of us who believe that our present planning system lacks vision. Planning should be forward looking. It should not be only about regulating development and controlling, but also about a vision for the future that connects with the total reality of people's lives, jobs, prosperity, neighbourhoods, the way we spend our recreational time, our ability to enjoy the countryside and our need to sustain our environment. Good planning can do all that. Indeed, the purpose of planning should be to create better places in which to live and work and a better quality environment. Good planning should be anchored at one end in national policies and at the other in the needs and wishes of the community.

We acknowledge the problems and we have a pretty good idea of the purpose of planning, but the question for this debate is whether the proposed reforms set out in the Green Paper and in the daughter papers can successfully deliver the real changes that need to be made. As we know, the proposed reforms include the introduction of local development frameworks to replace local, structure and unitary development plans. It is proposed that those LDFs would include a statement of community involvement. It is also proposed that the county council be removed from the development control part of the planning system and that regional planning guidance be replaced with regional spatial strategies on a five-year review. It is further proposed that planning policy guidance be more strategic and less prescriptive and that new targets for decisions on applications be set. It is proposed that commercial developers as well as residential developers provide affordable housing contributions. Many more changes are proposed which I shall not go into now but which I am sure will be well aired in our debate.

Early reactions to the Green Paper have ranged from the positive, as in the case of the Countryside Agency which believes that the Government's plans will make it easier to deliver affordable rural housing, and the CBI which has described the proposals as "sensible" and a way of accelerating economic growth, to those organisations which support the broad thrust of the Green Paper, as in the case of the LGA, but which have concerns about the removal of county councils from the system. Friends of the Earth is very concerned about the fast-tracking of major infrastructure projects.

Change is urgently needed as regards major infrastructure projects. I am sure that when BAA made its application to build a fifth terminal at Heathrow it did not expect to wait eight years for an answer‡ Government changed hands in those eight years and major players in that planning inquiry at the beginning of the eight-year period were probably happily retired by the end of it. A lot can happen in eight years, and a lot of economic opportunities can be lost and never regained.

In conclusion, if we are to plan better places in which to live and work and grow our economy sustainably, we must get policies right at the national level and make sure that they are clearly expressed and understood. We must make sure that there is a clear connection between those national policies and the way in which they are interpreted regionally and locally. We must have experienced planners who can think spatially to create a vision of how environments can be improved within the framework of policy. We must engage people in what they want for the future of their communities. We must tackle the lack of affordable housing in rural as well as urban areas, especially with young people in mind. We must encourage business development and improved infrastructure because, as we know, planning must maintain the vitality of the economy. We must create more opportunities for better housing, accessibility to jobs and services, and the renewal of our most deprived areas.

My noble and learned friend the Minister is on record as seeing the need, to restore people's confidence in the planning system". I believe that this Green Paper goes a long way to doing just that. I beg to move for Papers.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, has done good service in raising this matter and giving us the opportunity to debate the Government's Green Paper on planning. She suggested, quite rightly, that there are failures in the present system. She referred to what she called major changes suggested in the Green Paper. However, with deep respect I say that there are not enough major changes. I shall come to that matter in a moment.

The Green Paper is right to state that there is a need for change. Indeed, it states that "fundamental change is needed". But it is regrettable that not enough fundamental changes are suggested. Indeed, in considering the appeal system at paragraph 5.43, the only improvement that the Green Paper suggests is a reduction from six months to three months in the time available for applicants only to appeal. I suggest that whether applicants appeal, or third parties are given the right to appeal—I shall come to that matter—they or anyone else should be allowed only six weeks within which to appeal. That would reduce the delays to which the Green Paper refers in several places. It is vital that the delays should be reduced.

Another vital matter regarding appeals is one that I raised a week ago at Question Time. I see that the noble Lord. Lord Filkin, is present. He did his best to reply to the Question. I shall come later to some of the things that he said. I asked whether Her Majesty's Government would introduce legislation giving third parties rights of appeal. Perhaps I should have referred for greater clarity to giving objectors the right of appeal. The government reply referred to third parties and so does the Green Paper. Perhaps we can have an understanding that "third parties" is the broad expression that would he most applicable and that the word "objectors" might be too narrow.

As I say, the Green Paper considers third party rights of appeal. It does so at some length in paragraphs 6.19 to 6.23. The effect of the Government's suggestions on this vital matter is, briefly, that there should be no change of substance. That is a very regrettable point of view. In paragraph 6.22, the Government oppose giving third panics a right of appeal because that, could add to the costs and uncertainties of planning". I want to deal with that.

In reply to my Question last week, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said that, a third party right of appeal … could add to the … delays and uncertainties of planning".—[Official Report, 10/4/02; col. 409.] However, I suggest that if we reduced the time of appeal for anyone to six weeks, the delays would he considerably reduced. That cannot be denied.

Uncertainty is another factor that worries the Government. All appeals involve uncertainty but a high proportion of appeals succeed. If I may say so, I well remember that from my experience in practice as a barrister, when I did a number of appeals. I do not say that I always won them, but they were frequently won. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who will reply to this debate, knows that well.

As to costs, in order to get the right decision in the public interest, some extra costs would surely be well spent. For those reasons, I earnestly hope that the Government will extend to third parties the right of appeal.

5.52 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for initiating the debate on this important subject. We touched on it a few weeks ago in our debate on public services. From these Benches, we agree that it is Lime to review the planning system. I declare an interest as a member of Suffolk County Council and of the Local Government Association. As someone who has hands-on experience of the planning system, I readily concur that some change is necessary.

Individual planning applications often take far longer than they should to be processed. The plan-making process is slow and unresponsive to changing circumstances. We are all aware that major infrastructure projects can have a long lead-in time. Where we profoundly take issue with the proposals in the Green Paper is in relation to the suggestion that those problems of themselves necessitate the radical overhaul that is being proposed. There is no inherent virtue in being radical. Unless radical change is called for, surely it would be far better to spend time improving a system that has served us well for more than 40 years.

Delays in dealing with individual planning applications stem mainly from a shortage of planners at the district council level. The proposals do not address that—indeed, they add to the workload of district planners by the removal of the county tier.

So far as major infrastructure projects a re concerned, we need to get the problems perspective. Since 1984, only 12 public inquiries have lasted longer than three months. Some of them—for example, at Sizewell in my own county and Terminal 5—dragged on and on, mainly because the inquiries were attempting simultaneously to deal with issues of national policy alongside very local issues such as bus routes and road alignments.

The Green Paper proposes that major applications will be determined by Parliament. However, unless there is a clear national spatial plan that addresses issues such as housing numbers, major transport projects and energy, Parliament will be in no better position to deal with the issues than a public inquiry would be. How often do we complain that legislation arrives in this House ineffectively scrutinised by another place? Are we really to believe that Parliament is the right forum in which to debate and determine planning applications? Is it right that large government majorities can be mobilised to force through projects such as Terminal 5?

It is axiomatic that in a country the size of ours and which has such regional concentration of development, land-use issues will always be hotly contested. Clearly, not everyone will be happy with every decision that is made. A good planning system must ensure that there are mechanisms for making locally unpopular decisions where the broader perspective demands it. A plan-led system has helped to ensure that that happens. That has made it all the more important to have a system in which democratic and participatory processes are embedded. County councils have traditionally served that function. The public have come to expect that their democratically elected councillors, who are accountable to them, will take key decisions in the development of their area.

Major planning decisions that are made by the Secretary of State, on the advice of civil servants who perhaps have no knowledge of an area, will not be popular with local people. Nor will they be if they are decided by an as yet unelected regional tier. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton refers to that as the demimonde of the quango. Until there is a fully functioning and democratically elected regional tier, the removal of strategic planning from counties is premature to say the least.

Structure plans are indeed over-prescriptive, but that is the result of government guidance—it is classic Civil Service gold-plating. It could quite easily be foreshorened by concentrating on key strategic issues. Counties can work with districts, which can provide the local detail to strategic plans. This sort of partnership works well in other fields and should be practical with regard to planning.

Much of the time that is spent in developing structure plans involves statutory consultations and examinations in public, which are organised by the Government. County councils are being blamed for delays that are not of their making. The proposals to abolish county structure plans will compromise all of that—they will remove the link between land use planning and county functions, such as transport, minerals and waste disposal. Joint working could preserve those linkages.

Under the Green Paper's proposals, the functions that are carried out by the 35 shire counties will be transferred to 238 district councils, which will affect the strategic decision-making capacity and compromise the development control work of districts. Perhaps most importantly of all we should remember that, given the immense economic implications of land use planning, the current system of checks and balances acts as a guard against malpractice. There have been rare examples of unethical planning decisions, but never at the county level. The current high standards of probity and the ensuing public confidence should not be lightly thrown away.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the Government will think again about the proposals that are contained in the Green Paper, given the many concerns that have been raised by a whole range of organisations. The new local development frameworks should build on the existing close relationships between counties and districts. That would ensure that all councils, with their expertise in all local services and their links with all of the partner organisations, would be involved. The expertise and resources of all tiers would be used to best effect. That would make sense to the public, for whom these barriers are an irrelevance.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Best

My Lords, I declare an interest as director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which does much research into planning issues, and as director of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, which deals with planners on inner city sites and on a big development on the edge of York. I apologise for the fact that the high pollen count may somewhat inhibit my delivery.

The Planning Green Paper and its annexe on reforming planning obligations states that it sets out to secure delivery of affordable housing as one of its key themes. I ask whether it is likely to succeed in that noble aim.

Broadly, it must be good that reforms are intended to reduce complexity and bureaucratic barriers that distort opportunities to deliver much-needed extra homes. We are producing fewer homes than we have done since 1924. At the same time, the requirements for new homes have been growing. The gap between the two is producing alarming problems that are likely to grow in years to come.

I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of the Government's proposals relating to the tariffs which developers must pay when they develop new sites. That is introduced in place of the current arrangements whereby local authorities negotiate site by site with developers for the planning gains that they can squeeze out of those negotiations.

I suggest that the current arrangements are proving anarchic in the differences between local authorities throughout the country and are in need of substantial simplification and reform. They require local authorities to be skilled negotiators with sophisticated developers and the results differ wildly from place to place. Research which the trust is supporting at the Universities of Cambridge and Sheffield have been studying what is happening on the ground. They show wild variations in practice, with different definitions of what comprises affordable housing; with different quantities of affordable housing required; with different sums attaching to those numbers; with sometimes few skills in negotiating with developers in that process; and with differing outcomes in virtually identical circumstances.

A standardised tariff system sounds less complicated, more predictable and simpler and it would not require the same shrewd skills which do not always exist among the planners. It is also a tax which will apply to all but the tiniest of developments, instead of the current planning gains which apply only to medium and larger-scale developments. It is a tax which will apply to commercial developments and that seems sensible because those produce demands for extra homes as well. It is also a tax which will be able to be commuted—compiled from one site and spent on a different site, giving it flexibility—and transferred to another local authority if agreement can be reached.

In broad principle, therefore, the idea of a tariff sounds excellent. However, some dangers are inherent in that radical new proposal. First, it cannot be too standardised across the piece because the demand for affordable housing in its different forms will vary greatly from area to area. In some areas of the country there is a glut of social housing, while in others the shortages are very acute. Therefore, standardising the tariff obviously will not work.

Moreover, some negotiations will still be required within each local authority on a site-by-site basis because each parcel of land has its own peculiarities and the opportunities for that site to be productive to yield the dividends which can pay for affordable housing will vary site by site. We have discovered that one can be caught out by the sudden discovery of environmental constraints: beware the natterjack toad‡ In York, one may, half way through the development, discover a Roman fort beneath the ground; flooding has become more important to us; and there are many requirements on those seeking to develop a piece of land which cannot be standardised in advance. Negotiations will continue to be required in order to work on a site-by-site basis.

Finally, as regards such tariffs, clearly the guidelines which government produce must be sensitive and contain both flexibility and the assurance of simplicity and a measure of standardisation which prevents the current anarchy continuing. However, the amount of resource yielded by the new tax for affordable housing and other good purposes must not be over-estimated. That will not do the trick in producing all the resources needed to fill the gap between the amount that is required in terms of affordable housing and the amount that is currently being produced. That gap is now so wide that I fear tariffs from the new system alone will make only a modest but perhaps important contribution towards meeting it.

6.4 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for giving us the opportunity to consider this very important matter. I would like to touch briefly on the issues which affect leisure, tourism, heritage and archaeology.

Leisure is a rapidly changing area of economic and social life. Within the UK it is now the single largest item in the household weekly expenditure. But when the current planning system was set up, leisure property was not the economic force which it is now. It was associated far more with individual operators and non-commercial providers.

As Business in Sport and Leisure points out, the planning system reflects that. In almost every area and level of planning, leisure is seen as a "bolt-on". Guidance on leisure in PPGs is spread across several notes. PPG 17 deals with sport and recreation and PPG 21 deals with tourism. But most commercial schemes are affected by PPG 6 (Town Centres and Retail Development) and by No. 13 because of transport implications.

So how does the Minister expect that the proposed changes will bring about a more coherent approach to leisure planning? How will they enable the next generation of sport, cultural and entertainment properties to meet the demands of local communities more readily?

I welcome the Government's commitment to review the PPGs. Can the Minister say when his attention will turn to Nos. 17 and 21? I noticed that the Minister's Written Answer of 21st January this year stated that he would shortly be putting forward proposals about PPG 21 on tourism. How shortly is "shortly"?

As the English Tourism Council points out in its briefing, tourism is a vital regeneration tool. It cautions that the abolition of structure plans in shire county areas will mean the loss of a county-wide opportunity for a strategic view of tourism. I understand that the ETC has produced draft guidance which reflects the spirit of the Green Paper and could be used as the basis for a consultation on tourism planning. What is the Minister's view of that draft guidance?

The Government state at paragraph 4.61 of the Green Paper that PPGs 15 and 16, which cover the historic environment and archaeology, will be in the small number of PPGs on which they will focus during the next two years. The links between archaeology and development are significant, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, pointed out. Indeed, the majority of field archaeology in the UK is now funded by developers.

So what is the timetable for the revision of PPGs 15 and 16? And what procedures will be put in place for consulting the key organisations in the sector? I believe in particular it is essential that local government is actively involved at an early stage of the review. It is the key stakeholder in PPGs and it has the specialist archaeological and conservation staff responsible for their implementation.

When the Government launched A Force for Our Future—the inelegantly named AFOF the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who is to respond to today's debate, stated in a press release that the planning Green Paper would strengthen the Government's commitment to maintaining our historical environment and conservation in general. Those are laudable objectives and I welcome them. But how exactly will the Government achieve them via the reforms outlined in the Green Paper? How, for example, will the Government develop the sites and monuments records system into a coherent national strategy?

The briefing from the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers raises concerns about the Government's plans to abolish the county structure plans. It asks how a suitable local policy framework for the protection of the historic environment will be maintained. County historic environment services currently successfully provide strategic planning advice to all the county structure plans and all the rural districts' local plans within the counties.

Its experience of dealing with historic environment issues shows that it is vitally important to have a statutory sub-regional/county level input into land use planning and spatial planning. It is therefore concerned at the proposal to remove the country strategic plan-making function in the absence of any clear justification and without any clear evidence of need.

Finally, I should like to refer to a matter raised by the Council for British Archaeology. It believes that the Green Paper does not adequately explain what is proposed in relation to associated or parallel consent regimes. Does the Minister now accept, having seen the responses to the Green Paper, that the current arrangement for the national amenity societies to act as statutory consultees for listed building demolitions and alterations provides important benefits which should not be lost?

The Government now have an opportunity to make some worthwhile reforms to the planning system and I hope that they take full account of the thousands of responses to the consultation system before rushing ahead with much-needed legislation.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Crawley on initiating this important debate in such an effective manner. My past experience includes that as chairman of planning of Leeds City Council. In recent years I have been adviser to a number of property and development investment companies, for one of which I am currently a non-executive director.

I share with my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer the view that our planning system is often too slow, lacks predictability and is too complex, inefficient and bureaucratic. It often fails truly to engage the wider community in planning issues in a proactive and inclusive way. Therefore I welcome the Government's aim to increase the speed and effectiveness of performance in planning. I welcome the recognition that the existing UDP and structure planning processes often take far too long, sometimes becoming an obstacle rather than an aid to investment and development.

When consultation papers turn from an analysis of the problems and a statement of the broad principles, a number of specific proposals need to be developed in order to find suitable practical solutions. I have reservations about some of the proposals. The fact that detailed prescriptive solutions are not put forward is welcome. That provides the opportunity to reflect with care as we seek to resolve some difficult issues.

The UDP process has certainly not always worked well. In my own city of Leeds it took 10 years from first beginning work on a development to its final acceptance by the Secretary of State. That is madness. Nationally over 90 per cent of councils fail to meet the target that 80 per cent of planning applications should on average be decided within eight weeks. Planning departments are often under-staffed and under-resourced. The quality of planning staff is sometimes not up to the job in hand, requiring as it does multiple skills and clear and effective decision taking as well as strong professional skills.

I agree that planning application fees should be reviewed as well as being generally increased. They should be better related to the scale of resources required to deal properly with the issues involved. The maximum planning application fee is around £9,000 or £10,000, which is grossly inadequate for larger planning proposals, some of which can take millions of pounds of professional fees to prepare. Often the planning departments do not have a chance to deal properly and effectively with such matters in a timely way.

It is important that increased fees fund improvements in the number and quality of planning staff. I welcome the Government's intention to ensure clear accountability for fees and how much is spent on the planning service at local level. However, it is at the more strategic level of development plans that the greatest care and reflection are needed. There is and always has been a tension between more speed and more consultation. Improvements can be made in both, but the tension, even conflict, between those objectives will remain.

The Government must to a degree decide what they really want to do. There is a risk that they could fall between two stools in trying to please everyone. Developers and investors want speed certainly, but they also want certainty. The thoroughness and detailed map-based outcome of the urban development plans provided a framework that could work well. The Town and Country Planning Association believes that the present system of plan-making at local level can be transformed more quickly by reform rather than by wholesale replacement.

The new approach of local development frameworks, statements of core policies, action plans and statements of community involvement may well introduce more flexibility and more responsiveness into the planning and development process. The enterprising and innovative will welcome much of that, be they developers, councils or community representatives. But the whole process may also involve more uncertainty, more and longer consultation processes and ultimately more costs for everyone.

Finally, I turn to the document on planning obligations, which proposes a more comprehensive system to levy a tariff on new development to be used for the wider community good. I recall my experience as chairman of the Planning and Transportation Committee of the then Association of Metropolitan Authorities in the 1970s, when I was often called upon to explain and defend what was then called the "proposed development land tax"—some noble Lords may remember it. Indeed, I was once flown to Houston, Texas, to explain to a somewhat disbelieving and restless breakfast meeting of the American League of Mayors the benefits of a development land tax.

The Town and Country Planning Association would like to have a "betterment" tax and suggest that the new tariff be renamed a "community benefit contribution". When people start to discuss how best to present a new tax by a different name to soften its reception, in my experience Ministers and governments should start to worry. The then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, had a community charge that could never throw off its widespread description of being a "poll tax", and we know where that tax and ultimately the Prime Minister finished up.

There are many arguments for and against a development tax, whether at a local, regional or national level. The arguments are already being rehearsed. I simply observe today that this is not a core issue for the Government in their desire to modernise our planning system. They have enough to occupy themselves in achieving those other important reforms in the form of detailed legislation without engaging in the quagmire of another tax.

6.17 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for securing this debate. Though this is somewhat remote, I should declare an interest in that I have clients involved in planning applications. However, my real experience in planning matters stems from 30 years in local government, which I fear may be viewed as a disadvantage rather than an advantage.

The Government's objectives in Chapter 1 are unremarkable. I have some sympathy with their desire to see an improved situation regarding the approval of important public infrastructure projects. I recall having been involved with the Croydon Tramlink when the idea was first conceived. In the time it took for it to be developed, legislated for and started, the city of Strasbourg had both had the idea and completed it. Indeed, I have sympathy also with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer of Leeds, in his reference to the time taken over the preparation of the development plan.

Having said all that, questions arise on the details of this paper and I have a number for the noble and learned Lord. The Government claim that they will simplify the process and reduce the four tiers of plans. How is that simplification to come about if we replace the present system with a plethora of plans and policies, regional spatial strategies, maybe sub-regional strategies, local development frameworks, master plans and action area plans, which themselves have four sub-texts and in some instances business development plans? They are certainly different but I fail to see how they are simpler; I fail to see how they are more accountable; and I fail to see how they are more transparent. Indeed, we underestimate the public. Having borne the scars of the preparation of one UDP and one district plan, local government and their electors are well versed in consultation and preparation of these matters.

I am particularly concerned about the suggestions relating to regional planning. That in itself raises a number of questions. The regional planning bodies to be charged with a strategy must meet certain criteria. In paragraph 4.46 it is clearly stated that they will not meet those criteria if they consist of a group of local authorities. I ask the noble and learned Lord: why not? The Government have said that if elected regional assemblies come about, they will perform the role. Presumably they will consist of elected members. Therefore, what is wrong with the existing local authorities—the county councils—doing the job, perhaps with an enhanced mechanism for cooperation between them?

I fear that at the heart of all this is the abolition of the county councils' role in these matters. One is bound to ask whether this is the precursor to the abolition of the counties themselves. It has been made clear that, if regional assemblies came about, they would do so only within a regime of single-tier local government. That in itself raises another question. I should have thought that it would obviously fall to a devolved assembly rather than a national government to fix the form of local government in a region. However, that is perhaps another issue.

I am also afraid that it is a way of introducing through the back-door greater planning influence for regional development agencies. The noble and learned Lord will remember that, when the regional development agencies came into being, those proposals were dropped in another place before they even came to your Lordships' House because it would have been too controversial for them to have a planning role.

I fear that the general thrust of this Green Paper is that the system has survived for 50 years despite local government rather than because of it. There are some nice words about training local government members. Everyone needs help and experience, but since when have politicians at any level required a professional qualification to exercise a particular office? It would be a presumption to ask what qualifications the Secretary of State has for any of the functions carried out by his department.

When it comes to local development plans, I fear that there is an enormous burden in the constant requirement to review and a considerable financial requirement. Is it really necessary to tell local authorities how to run planning meetings and how to deal with the access to papers? This is reducing local government to local administration.

Perhaps I may ask some further questions. There is reference to enforcement. Has the noble and learned Lord given any consideration to ensuring that, when a planning permission is obtained, for example by a supermarket for a building of a certain size and a certain number of car parking spaces, it cannot, once it is built, then seek to increase the size of the building and, indeed, reduce the number of parking spaces? This is a very real problem.

With regard to statutory consultees, I cannot find anything in the Green Paper that deals with highway authorities, where very often, in effect, two tiers of planning authorities are involved, and that leads to inevitable delays. We got rid of that system in London and then reintroduced it as a great advance.

Lastly, with regard to masterplanning in paragraph 5.43, what will its benefit be compared with obtaining an outline planning permission? What presumptions will flow from the certificate? What objections will be pre-empted by obtaining that? If there is none, what is the benefit? I look forward to hearing the response of the noble and learned Lord in reply.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity provided by this debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. In so doing, I declare an interest as an Oxfordshire county councillor.

If an army marches on its stomach, so any planning system is dependent on the people who work within it. I shall confine my remarks this evening to discussing the effects on the present staff and the implications for them of the changes proposed by the Government. I shall also address the issue of the potential sources of qualified planning staff and of the prospects of those people becoming available. That is an issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, referred just now.

At present, most staff who deal with higher level planning, not development control, are based in county councils and some are in the regional offices of government. The 34 county councils together employ approximately 500 staff in policy planning. Under these proposals, that responsibility would be delegated to 238 district councils, plus, of course, major and higher paid roles at regional level.

The cost of those people, if they are available, would be very difficult to forecast. However, I forecast that the salary drift alone—not the extra people; simply the salary drift—would cost at least £6 million. If the Government believe that we are exaggerating, perhaps they will look at the huge growth in administrative costs which have occurred, for example, in Berkshire as a result of local government reorganisation. Even there, the districts have chosen to come together to deal with their wider spatial planning needs at a current annual cost of between £600,000 and £700,000. A recently completed study has indicated that local government reorganisation cost at least twice as much as was estimated at the time.

At district level, although the loss of local plans would free up some resources, we estimate that the need for wider consultation would require more staff and the new strategic planning approach at local level would require more and better quality staff. For example, a district council with 100,000 people may currently expect to have a planning staff of about 10. We believe that that number would increase to at least 14. The cost of that is around £45 million, plus the accommodation required, and, of course, the cost of regional staff and the accommodation for those people.

All that presupposes that such properly trained and qualified staff are available. Of course, before we consider that point, we must take into account that many of the mature and experienced people who currently work in county councils would leave, giving rise to a loss of experience. There would also be severance costs associated with their departure.

The pressure on district council staff will be intense, particularly in districts which are close to large conurbations, where the planning demands are most intensive. This will be made worse by any lack of professionalism which becomes evident. It will not be improved by the employment of agency staff because of the need for continuity in planning. A recent report by Arup and Bayley to the DETR laid out those very facts in considerable detail.

On average, it takes between three and five years for the academic training of a planner, plus two years' practical experience to achieve a professional qualification. Producing trained professional planning staff who are able to give a good service, and making allowances for the wastage to which I have already referred, is not deliverable in anything like the timescales envisaged by the Government under these proposals. At present, it probably requires 15 years' experience to become a chief planning officer, 10 years for a senior planning officer, and fewer years, of course, as one goes down the scale.

The only postgraduate course in planning which I can now identify is offered at the University of Strathclyde Business School. It accommodates 10 or 15 places a year. To increase the quantity of professional planners in both the private and public sectors will require at least two years in establishing new courses for training. It will not be easy to bring qualified planners into what is not a very attractive profession. It is highly unlikely that they can be recruited within the timescale that the Government have in mind. Simply wishing that the problem did not exist is not a response that will give anyone any satisfaction. District councils are already weak in their planning and development control functions, and only 13 per cent of the 262 local plans, including the unitaries, have been put in place.

We have to say that the image of a career in planning is poor, especially for undergraduate courses. The funding available for postgraduate courses is very limited as county councils have reduced funds available for discretionary grants. Staff salaries are low, and the private sector, which offers more attractive career possibilities, is not a substitute for proper local government.

Therefore, I urge the Government to leave the county structure planning responsibilities in place until they have at least put in place democratically elected regional government, have determined what its responsibilities will be and simplified the development control functions of district councils. They must also address the attractiveness of planning as a career option and substantially increase the training capability within our universities.

6.30 p.m.

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, on initiating this debate. My only regret is that there is so little time to deal with some of the big issues involved. I declare an interest as a non-executive director of Slough Estates and a non-interest in that I am not a practitioner. I view this subject more from my experience as a Minister and as an MP for 27 years.

I have been concerned about the delays—the Heathrow fifth terminal is the most obvious example—and the huge cost. There are many examples in the roads programme. When I was Secretary of State I was told that from a project entering the national roads programme to its completion took 13.5 years on average: 12 of those years being spent on the planning process and one and a half on the building. That is fairly typical.

I remember cases in my own constituency. One was a bypass that was much required and desired by the local community, but it was held up for many months—in fact, for more than a year—because of the need to consult on a detailed change that involved only about a yard or two on a roundabout. I recognise the need for reform and I agree with the objectives, but I do not underestimate the difficulties that the Minister faces in reconciling often conflicting objectives.

I shall make two preliminary points before turning to my main point. The first is the danger of a stand-still in decision making while the Government make up their mind. Detailed changes to simplify planning zones could be made, for example, and they could be put on hold while local authorities wait to see what happens to business planning zones. More seriously, local development plans could be put on the back-burner while they see what happens to the local development framework proposals.

My second point is that so often one hears that the real issues are in the detail rather than in the general principles that are supported. There is a need for the Government to move fast on the details if they are not to hold up planning decisions in the way that I have described.

The fundamental problem, recognised by other noble Lords, is the tension between the desire for a simpler, more cost-effective and above all speedier overall structure and decision-making process and the desire to have the widest possible consultation, possibly even wider than now. When I inquired of the department why there were long delays—12 years for the planning process for a road—I was told that layer upon layer of new decision hearings had been introduced to meet further requirements for consultation or to meet previous objections to the system. That is the problem.

We cannot achieve both objectives of the ultimate ideal at once. There will always be winners and losers and the losers will always want further opportunities for their case to be heard. My fear is that the present proposals will not solve that and may lead to further delays. Paragraph 5.57 of the Green Paper refers to technical and other aid to pressure groups, which could increase their capacity and ability further to delay the process. I sympathise with the Minister. He will have to take robust and tough decisions.

I specifically agree with those who are opposed to the removal of the county structure plans. That is my biggest concern. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, I take the eastern region's view. I do not see the new proposals as an advance—quite the reverse. I believe that the regions should stick to overall guidance, but in the Green Paper there are a number of indications that the regional spatial strategies will become more focused, detailed and statutory. Therefore, they are likely to become the regional structure plans.

The difficulties are as follows. First, there are constant references in the Green Paper to the need to have subregional structure plans. What are county structure plans but subregional plans? Secondly, the region is far too big for a structure plan of that kind. People in Norfolk do not consider that people in Bedford will understand their requirements. Thirdly, the democratic aspect will be lost because I do not believe that regional, directly elected assemblies will come about in our region, so there will be huge criticism added to the remoteness. My view is that the county structure plans should remain.

On local development plans and local development frameworks, I agree that the current system is an unwieldy beast. It is far too bureaucratic and needs reform. I do not have time to go into detail, but while I welcome the flexibility of not having to cover the whole area, not needing to be so comprehensive and having regular reviews, like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, my concern is that the remedy may prose worse than the disease. We need to know more of the details. I suggest a trial period so that the system is introduced in one area before it goes national.

On reforming planning obligations, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, who was concerned that the tariff system will, effectively, become a further stealth tax through a community levy. I have a number of reasons for that concern, but I do not have time to elaborate them. Many points in the Green Paper suggest that it will go wider and well beyond the planning gains that are involved in developments. I hope that it will be reconsidered.

On major projects, I return to the fifth terminal at Heathrow. The parliamentary procedure proposal is worth considering. I saw it work in regard to the Channel Tunnel high speed link. It is worth investigating, but it must not take place on the basis of a one-hour debate in both Houses and with government Whipping. It must also be carefully worked through so that it does not add yet another layer and even more weight and delays to the process. For major projects, of which there are a few, that may be worth considering.

I could make many other points and there are many in chapter five on development control which can be taken forward under the present system and which will not require the new structure. I regret that there is not more time in which to contribute further to the debate. I return to the point that the county structure plans concern me most.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Crawley knocked a number of nails on the head. One may say that this is a brave Green Paper. Not all noble Lords like all of it, but that is what a Green Paper is all about. It has focussed our minds on where we go from here.

I remind the House that 1947 was a great moment in the history of town and country planning. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 has stood us in good stead, as it still does. I do not believe that one will find too many areas of national life where that can be said, despite the fact that pressures on development are growing all the time.

Society is now more wealthy. I remind noble Lords that often those who object to development plans are people who have a good income, use more energy, have bigger houses and use more transport than the rest of the community. There is a delicate balance. I refer to Rio de Janeiro 1992. We have sustainable development—not no development at all.

There are a number of separate concepts to planning, of which I can give four examples. I believe we generalise too much about what to do in relation to planning. First, there is the county structure plan; secondly, a T5 or a Channel tunnel project, which is totally different; thirdly, an out-of-town supermarket, which is also totally different; and fourthly, I want to erect a second garage in my garden. The issues of public participation will also be different according to those different kinds of development.

There is a case for change for which I can give a couple of examples. I have given evidence at structure plan inquiries and at local plan inquiries arising from a couple of hats that I have worn and there is something unbalanced about the structure plan inquiry and the local plan inquiry procedure at the moment. The procedure is all to do with objectors. One may say that that is obvious, but in a local newspaper one never reads that Lancashire County Council or Surrey County Council have done anything half good in their structure plans; one reads only what Friends of the Earth or someone else says. That gives the public a distorted view that people are up in arms against a particular structure plan, which has been arrived at democratically. Often many people are not up in arms about it, but it is unrepresentative, single-issue pressure groups who are up in arms. If that is the drift of the Green Paper on such a matter, I am totally with it.

The example of T5 is different. The moral to draw from T5 may be that we need a cull of lawyers and a contiguous cull in adjoining counties as well‡

Paragraph 4.37 of the Green Paper states that, the county no longer remains the most appropriate level at which to consider many of the key strategic planning issues … We propose to abolish structure plans". I think that the Government are resiling somewhat from that. There have been statements by my noble friend on that. They are shedding "tiers"—I have spelt it wrongly in my notes, but perhaps I spelt it correctly—to a single level of plan.

The key new demand is for subregional plans. No region is the same as another. It may be true that no one in Norfolk talks to anyone in Bedford, but certainly people in Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire have to talk to each other because any so-called local strategic road—whether ostensibly covered by a transport supplementary grant or whatever it is called these days—which is not a trunk road has to be financed. Let us not forget in the debate that it is 100 per cent national finance. But we have to ensure that all these counties work together.

That has already started to produce a new type of democratic decision making. We should build on that. That is my next major point. We need to build on what we have rather than be tempted by the idea that we should pull everything up by the roots. That may not be what the Green Paper intends but sometimes it reads a little like that.

It raises the question of what I call "jurisprudence". If one takes another field of economic life—for example, mergers and takeovers—it takes years to get people used to the jurisprudence: if one does that one is likely to have some certainty that that will happen. Indeed, in local structure plans if one's bypass is number five in the queue and one has waited eight years to get there, one does not want to suddenly find that that structure plan is redundant. There are many vested interests which need to be looked at; but there are some legitimate interests that the jurisprudence in a broader sense of that term is adhered to. We have some confidence in that system.

On balance, I support the development tax instead of the present arrangements for planning gain. I used to have some sympathy with Henry George and the land value tax. The Liberal Democrat Party also used to support that. I do not know where they stand now. But I think that there is a good deal of mileage in the development taxation principle.

Finally, I make one point about the organisation of staff in this field. There will not be a common pattern of regional government across the country. Civil Service workers have a different trade union structure. I make this not as a parochial point, but I can assure your Lordships that one has to know what one is doing in respect of this tricky interface between civil servants who are nationally accountable and local government unions—UNISON and so on—in order to arrive at the right solution to the relationship between regional and subregional government.

6.43 p.m.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, the Green Paper means well. One has only to scan the opening pages to detect its good intentions. We need good planning to deliver development that is sustainable ….A proper planning system is vital to our quality of life … planning applications will be dealt with efficiently". One is bathed in a rosy glow of approbation and happy anticipation for the future. Until, that is, one reads right through to the very end—all 67 pages—and realises that there is not one mention, not even a hint about one of the most crucial areas of planning: the need to ensure that all new building is protected from the terrible danger of being engulfed by floods.

We would not build new houses over an old mine. We are fairly careful about building in areas prone to coast erosion. Why are we failing to recognise that building on ground which is liable to be flooded is almost criminally negligent?

It is not as though we have not had serious flooding problems in recent years, from which we should have learned. I could cite many examples of just how disastrous it has been for the poor people who have suffered. Time constraints forbid that.

Recently, we have heard from insurance companies that they will not insure properties built on flood plains. That means that people who have bought such houses will never be able to sell them because one cannot get a mortgage if the house is uninsurable. Apart from that, who is going to bail out the poor wretched people whose homes have been flooded? Who will pay for the replacement carpets and furniture or the hotel or boarding house accommodation needed while the houses are uninhabitable? Where will the money come from for structural repairs?

The Water Resources Act 1991 lays a responsibility on planning authorities to guard against the business of putting homes in areas likely to flood. But, from all I hear, that responsibility is frequently totally ignored. Looking at the Green Paper certainly seems to confirm the charge. It is not as though Ministers have not been told about the dangers.

In 1998, Mr Elliott Morley received a detailed submission from the Nene Flood Prevention Alliance—I have since become the honorary president of that body—warning him of the dangers of building there. He was concerned enough to commission a report. The committee was chaired by a Mr Peter Bye. Members of the Environment Agency sat on that committee. Bye reported serious deficiencies in flood maps, flood defences and recorded flood levels, to name but a few. But, having commissioned the report, Mr Morley really cannot be said to have acted enormously energetically to set matters right. He did allocate some money to improve flood defences, but it was nowhere near enough. Norwich Union, for instance, said that it was, barely half what was needed". The Minister made no mention of funding for flood storage, reservoirs or drainage to make good the damage done by the Government's house-building policies.

The present system, whereby central Government impose house-building quotas on areas where river drainage capacity has already gone into massive shortfall, simply increases the risk of flooding. Local authorities are so busy doing the Government's bidding to "build, build, build" that they ignore the dangers. Only a week or so ago a firm of building contractors in Northampton were building houses on land which was not only contaminated but on a flood plain. Planning permission had obviously been obtained. But because the ground was contaminated, the builders had to cover it with clay in order to cap the soil. They did that—very convenient for them—by simply pinching 35 metres of the clay flood defences from the banks of the Nene River. Only the recent God-given sunny weather saved the area; that, and the sharp eyes of local residents who quite rightly raised Cain.

The Environment Agency was called in. The contractors were forced to replace what they had torn up. But should they not have been told as a condition of planning permission about the need to keep the flood defence wall? Should not this Green Paper have a section, a paragraph or at least one teeny-weeny mention of the importance of avoiding submersion dangers in the vast building site that much of Britain is becoming?

I was doubtful that I would have the time to pay my tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. I just about have; and I do.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I too am glad that we have had an opportunity to discuss this important document. Its general trend makes me feel distinctly uneasy. However, I shall confine my remarks to three salient points where I see difficulty.

First, I take issue with the first sentence of chapter 1. That states that the Green Paper is about delivering a fundamental change to the planning system. I believe that to be wrong. I see no reason to change our fundamental system. It is a nation-wide, plan-led system, executed in the main by councillors who are elected members of public authorities. There are provisions for public inquiries on points which are contentious and on these the Secretary of State is the ultimate referee. These are admirable features. Although the long Terminal 5 inquiry illustrated a particular significant defect in the system, we should not alter its main structure.

Having spent much of my life living abroad and having seen the effects of other nations' planning systems, I think we come out pretty well from the comparison. In particular, I remember two awful examples of what can go wrong: the total destruction of the littoral of the Attica peninsula in Greece; and the desecration on the Adriatic shore of the eastern side of the Italian peninsula between Ravenna and Rimini. We have avoided those horrors, thanks to our system. I have little doubt that our arrangements are better, more open, more honest and subject to better democratic control than those in most other European countries.

So I seriously doubt the starting point of the Green Paper. Let us by all means adjust our arrangements by learning from experience: they have been in place for a long time; perhaps we can improve on them. But let us not throw the baby out with the bath water, as does the Green Paper.

I accept the need for important changes to the handling of large infrastructure projects, but I doubt that the Government have found the right balance. Can it be right to give the Secretary of State such broad discretion to decide which major projects should be referred to Parliament? The document contains a list of examples, but we may also need guidelines to assist the Secretary of State—for example, relating to representations made to him by responsible bodies. Total discretion in the hands of the Minister appears excessive.

What can we do to ensure that Parliament's decision is based on a careful analysis of the facts? Should there be a free vote in Parliament? Will there be prior discussion in Committee before a vote? Perhaps a Joint Committee of the two Houses could produce independent analysis for Parliament to consider. Above all, can it be right to endow the Secretary of State with, as the paper states, the final say at the end of the process? The powers conferred on the executive in that model appear too extensive.

My second principal concern is about the rearrangement of responsibilities at local level. The county structure plan is to be abolished and local plans replaced by a local development framework. I believe that to be mistaken, given the local knowledge, understanding and experience available at county level. To whom will the new framework be entrusted? It must have one or more parents.

As the noble Lords, Lord Bowness and Lord MacGregor, pointed out, the Government's line of thought appears to anticipate the creation of elected assemblies in the regions. We all have views about that, but they do not yet exist, and we must work with the existing structures. Downgrading or eliminating the planning function of county councils would place a heavy burden on district and parish councils, which do not have the resources—human or financial—to undertake the task. Their discussion with a government department would not be a dialogue of equal partners. It would surely be a mistake to terminate the role of county councillors, who have a significant contribution to make to planning matters.

Parish councils are of variable quality, and it is often difficult to persuade those who are best qualified to serve to take on the job. The new code of conduct requiring disclosure of their personal finances is widely regarded as unduly intrusive. The comments of the County Councils Network on this part of the Green Paper are carefully thought through. It concludes that the Government's proposals are, fundamentally flawed and … not workable in practice". The network's counter-proposal for subregional integrated development networks, making best use of existing bodies, is worthy of serious consideration. I hope that the Government will consider it, as it appears to be a preferable solution to that proposed in the Green Paper. I hope that when the White Paper is published—at the end of last debate on local government a month ago, we were told that that would be before the summer Recess—that will have happened, and that we shall have an opportunity to debate the White Paper in due course.

6.54 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, planning figures often on parish council minutes and is a major issue for both district and county councils. My main experience has been in a rural context, where, on occasion, I have been made acutely aware of applications turned down by the parish council, recommended for refusal by the planning department and voted against by the planning committee, but passed on appeal by the Secretary of State. Many noble Lords have referred to delay, and I shall emphasise that as well.

I should like to touch on four matters: rural housing, third parties, local county councils and services and landfill. I find myself in some sympathy with the recommendations in the report of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, Third Party Rights of Appeal in Planning, although with two major exceptions. First, certainly in rural areas, appeals should be open only to a third party who has already raised an objection and whose case is supported by one or more of the parish council, the district or borough planning committee and the planning officer. They should be prepared to bear the cost should the case fail. There is a need for third party appeals, but I appreciate that they often cause delay.

Secondly, grounds for appeal should be widened to include an automatic right wherever a set of plans, having been turned down by the parish council and the planning officer, is approved by the planning committee on the casting vote of the chairman. The public, especially in a small community, would be less suspicious of the planning process were such a right available.

I have also received papers from the National Trust, which expresses its concern. It states: The Green Paper contains no measures explicitly to enhance the role of Parish Councils in policy formulation and decision making". With my agricultural hat on, but speaking as an individual, farmers are frustrated by being constantly told to diversify but finding great difficulty in getting planning permission so to do. That takes time and thwarts their business progress.

To some extent, I also agree with the CPRE's recommendation that planning authorities should, if and when asked, have to supply reasons for granting consent, especially where objections have been raised. While it is desirable that planning meetings should be held in open session to the public, access is not easy enough—especially for people from villages—and to deny the public the facility to obtain reasons for decisions taken at those meetings is perhaps something that the Minister should consider.

I, too, am concerned about the responsibility for planning moving away from the counties and more decisions being pushed to regional level. Local people are the ones who know what is going on locally. I fear that as decisions move from county to region, they will be made by people who do not know the local area as well and are often, if I may say so, urban-based and not necessarily as au fail with the rural needs under consideration.

A departmental consultation paper closed for consultation four weeks ago. When will we receive the Government's response to it? How soon thereafter will we he able to debate it in this House? Will the department also carry out a review of the fee regime mentioned in the paper? If so, how quickly? When will it publish its consultation on major changes to the compulsory purchase and compensation systems and how quickly will it respond?

I, too, would like to touch on the point made by my noble friend Lady Knight. There has been much building in flood plains and on green belt, and I urge the Government to continue to develop on brownfield sites wherever possible, to relieve that pressure. In Leicester, we had a good example of a big project that received government money, which made a huge difference to the centre of Leicester and relieved the pressure on outlying areas.

I turn briefly to responsibility for landfill recycling. I know that the Green Paper is about planning, but it should cover that issue too, because it is hugely important. The more houses we build, the more waste there is, which must be dealt with. Who bears the cost of landfill, recycling and dumping—we know only too well of the mountains of fridges, electrical goods and cars? At present, it is the local authorities. Will the Government be putting money their way to help them? I am concerned about those four matters, because I believe them to be hugely important.

I conclude on the need for affordable housing—a subject upon which I have spoken many times previously in this House. The availability of rural affordable housing is crucial. However, it is one area where the Government's record is slipping. Local plans very often relate to plans to provide more three and four-bedroom houses, but we need affordable housing. Local authorities sometimes need to respond to builders who submit such plans by saying "No, what we need are more smaller units of affordable housing and/or retirement homes". I see from the Clock that I have overrun my time, but I should just like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for initiating the debate.

7 p.m.

Lord Crathorne

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. I am expressing my thanks at the beginning of my remarks in case I run out of time.

There is no question that planning procedures can be improved, but the Minister will know from representations made to his department that concerns have been raised about aspects of the process. Indeed, like myself, I am sure that all noble Lords who have taken part in this evening's debate have received many representations from various organisations. One local representation to me came from the North Yorkshire County Council, where I live, which wrote in a most alarmed way about the proposal in the Green Paper to cut out county councils from the new processes—a point much mentioned in this debate.

I should like to talk about one specific recommendation in the Green Paper that was actually touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns. However, before I do so, I should declare an interest as president of the Georgian Group and past president of the Joint Committee of National Amenity Societies. At present, the amenity societies such as the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings are statutory consultees. This means that since 1972 local planning authorities have been required to notify them about applications that provide for the demolition or significant alteration of listed buildings. For example, at the Georgian Group we currently receive 6,000 notifications a year from planning authorities in England and Wales, to which we respond substantively to around one quarter.

As we all know, the quality of planning applications varies enormously. Many are poorly conceived and presented, being drawn up without the benefit of an architect's expertise. The planning system exists in part to protect the public interest against the crude and damaging interventions into our built environment that would result if such applications were allowed. It is surely right that local authorities should have to consult the organisations with the expertise to be of help to them. The Green Paper queries that and suggests in paragraph 5.33 that the number of statutory consultees should be reduced. It is silent on which consultees might lose their status, but it is possible that one or two of the amenity societies might be among that number.

In my view, there are three main arguments why the latter should not happen. First, the formal involvement of amenity societies in the planning process as statutory consultees gives significant additional protection to Grade II listed buildings. I should remind the House that Grade II buildings form 94 per cent of the total. English Heritage concentrates heavily on Grade I and Grade II* buildings, and will involve itself only exceptionally in alterations to Grade II buildings. The amenity societies are the only formal external consultees on such applications.

Secondly, the involvement of amenity societies gives planning authorities a source of expertise that would otherwise not be available. One-third of planning authorities do not employ a conservation officer and many of the remainder employ them at a junior level. Without amenity societies, those authorities would have no informed advice on which to base decisions. I believe that it is rather too optimistic to suppose that such authorities would consult the amenity societies unless they were actually required to do so.

Finally, consultations with amenity societies are not, as the Green Paper implies, a significant source of delay. They are normally given 21 or 28 days, but just 14 days by some authorities, to comment. Occasionally they will ask for more time to investigate the matter, but that is rare; and it is open to the planning authority to refuse that extension of time. The consultation period generally runs parallel to the period during which members of the public can respond, so there is really no delay. It is perhaps worth adding that the statement made in paragraph 5.30 of the Green Paper that, most planning authorities will not take a decision in the absence of advice from a statutory consultee". does not normally apply to the national amenity societies.

For these reasons, I take the view that retention of the statutory consultee status for the national amenity societies is essential if the Government's aspirations for the built heritage, which were clearly and well expressed in The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future, are to be realised. The present arrangements, which bring into the formal planning process the voluntary expertise of the leading authorities in the fields of building conservation, are much admired in other countries. Indeed, a delegation from Denmark which came to visit me, among other people, just last week asked me how the whole process worked.

Can the Minister give me an assurance that his department will consult with the amenity societies before the proposals in the Green Paper are taken any further? The Green Paper envisages a system under which the bodies that remain statutory consultees would charge for their responses and be statutorily required to respond within 21 days. I cannot deal with these proposals in detail at this point, but suffice to say that a fee system replacing the current casework grant from English Heritage could result in a considerably increased administrative workload. Moreover, there will be cases where a standard 21-day response will be simply unrealistic.

There is a danger of attaching too great a virtue to speed that in the end is counterproductive because it may compromise the quality of the outcome, which will not be as good as it should be. Again, that will diminish public confidence in the planning process. I know that the Government are very keen to address the feeling that at present there is not much confidence in the system. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

7.7 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, I, too, welcome this opportunity to debate the Green Paper. Although it is technically past the closing date for consultation, we are indebted to my noble friend Lady Crawley for having enabled, if you like, a live consultation to take place this evening. While sitting in the Chamber listening to the debate with the majority of Members, including myself, having to declare an interest, I noted the diverse views expressed. If I were the Minister sitting on the Front Bench, one of the lines that I would be taking from the debate is the fact that everyone wants change but that there is no consensus about the kind of change required.

Several speakers mentioned the 1947 Act, stressing how good it has been and adding that we just need to amend it. I rather suspect that one of the reasons for having a piece of legislation that is over 50 years old is that it would have taken a very brave Minister to begin scrutinising it and making changes. I declare an interest as the chairman of the Housing Corporation. When seeing through these proposals—albeit with necessary changes—I hope that my noble and learned friend the Minister will keep the courage that he has shown in producing this Green Paper.

I should like to draw on my experience as chairman of the Housing Corporation and speak about affordable housing. The corporation is the single biggest investor in England. Having had our expenditure doubled by the Government for this coming financial year, we shall have something like £1.2 billion, which, with matching private sector funding, will mean that we shall spend over £2 billion on affordable housing throughout the country. Our experience has shown that the quality as regards the way in which planning is dealt with in this country is variable—some parishes are good, while others are bad; and some counties are good, but others are bad. There is no doubting the fact that the planning process is variable.

The quality of such planning has a profound effect upon how the corporation is able to deliver its investment programme. An efficient and effective planning system is absolutely essential to deliver the affordable housing that is required, but the current system is failing people throughout the country. It means that people are not receiving the housing that they need at the time when it is needed.

We welcome the introduction of the Green Paper. The current system is complex and remote. If one asks a local group of tenants, they look at you as if you have come from space. By and large, they do not know much about it and they have little involvement in it. The system should be more open than it is, and we welcome that reference in the Green Paper. We also welcome the reduction of the period for planning consents from five years to three. That will help create an urgency that is not currently obvious in many areas.

It takes longer for rural housing to move from the conception to the final building and occupation by tenants than it does for urban housing. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford—I nearly said, "My noble friend", because she happens to be a friend—was not quite correct in her reference to our build of rural housing. At the requirement of the Government, it has been doubled in the past few years. We get frustrated because there is money to invest but all too often the planning process takes too long to give local people the housing that they need.

As my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall said, in the little villages—villages with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants—it is often people with a second home there who put forward the most articulate and sophisticated objection to the provision of affordable housing. There are people who do not want to see the location into which they have moved change, even if that change is to the benefit of the children of the villagers who have lived there for so long. We would like to see the system improved.

From our experience, the proposal in the Green Paper for the development of a local framework sounds good. However, it must be absolutely clear. We do not want to see a local framework that involved the people who wished to be involved deal only with the geography of the place. Surely, the framework must include people from the local ethnic communities, who often do not participate, and people from local areas of deprivation. There must be a requirement for their views to he taken into account and included in the framework plan.

Reference was made to the counties and the regions. We have found that, out of sheer necessity, the planning for our investment programme has had to move to sub-regional development. The requirement for sub-regional investment plans has moved from local authority areas not to counties—it might be three counties, as in the North West—but to towns within those counties. We welcome that development.

The Green Paper says that business does not necessarily require planning. That must be clear. Increasingly, over-business accommodation is used as a way to relieve local housing pressures, particularly in urban areas and particularly in the South East. In today's Budget, the VAT payable on residential conversions has been reduced to 5 per cent and there is a 100 per cent tax allowance for the first year for converting vacant spaces above shops into flats. That will be of major assistance.

Planning is crucial not just for housing but for our environment. I hope that we do not miss the opportunity. There may be parts of the Green Paper that people do not like, but I hope that we can carry it through. The Minister has had the courage to bring it forward; we must have the courage and the vision to support those essential changes.

7.14 p.m.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for introducing this important subject. I thank the Minister for putting a picture of my former constituency on page 26 of the Green Paper; it is rather charming. I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, and I declare an interest as a former chairman and now president of the English Rural Housing Association, which receives funds from the Housing Corporation for those villages of fewer than 3,000 people. I know exactly what the noble Baroness is talking about in that regard.

In the previous Parliament, I was joint chairman of the All-Party Group on Housing, Planning and Lind that included Members of both Houses. It came into being as a reaction to the shock to the political and public weal caused by the announcement of the proposal to build another 4.4 million houses and of the top-down policy of allocation. In that case, there were to be half a million more houses in the South West—my area—over the next 15 years.

I am interested to see the increased interest in planning because, in an earlier incarnation, I had the privilege of being the Minister in the Department of the Environment responsible for planning and Secretary of State for the Environment. I lived through inquiries such as those into the Vale of Belvoir, the second terminal at Gatwick and the Green Giant in London, which some may remember. Eccentrically, I even had to give planning permission for the airport at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands. I also had responsibility for nuclear waste, and even the drilling test programme required planning permission. Given the amount of public interest that that stirred up, I am well aware of the acute interest in planning issues that can suddenly arise and of the problems of accommodating the necessity for democracy in the planning system.

I make the general comment that, when I was a Minister and a Secretary of State, there was a more deferential approach to planning. People used to receive letters saying, "The Secretary of State has decided…", and they believed that he had actually taken the decision, rather than delegating it to an inspector who was using his name. People were more ignorant of the whole structure. I remember meetings in my constituency that had been called to allow people to complain about a proposed development, only to be told that they were three years too late, that it had already been decided under the structural plan and that it had gone forward under the relevant planning procedure. People were frustrated because they did not understand the basis of the planning system.

I recognise the need for improvement in the planning system. There is a need for continuous improvement in the system, as problems arise. I pay tribute to some of the good points in the Green Paper. The proposed changes relating to twin-tracking, repeated application and time-limited consents are sensible. I endorse the proposal for more planning training for councillors. I was on the Nolan Committee, and that was one of the recommendations that we made. I am glad to see that echoed in the Green Paper.

I also agree with the point about the need for more resources for planning, including more planning officers. As the Minister knows, I should also declare an interest as non-executive chairman of ExCeL, the new national exhibition centre in London. That development is associated with several other major developments and is bringing considerable development to one of the most deprived boroughs in London but is posing major planning resource problems for the borough concerned. Perhaps, a deprived borough is used to not having too many planning applications and does not have the resources to cope with the challenge.

I referred to my experience of major inquiries. There is a problem, and I shall echo what my noble friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market said. The test of the Government's proposals is in what they mean by new parliamentary procedures. It would be an outrage, given the Government's overwhelming majority, if the proposals were to be carried through by a parliamentary vote under the present whipping system. The noble Lord, Lord Best— perhaps it was the noble Lord, Lord Bridges—referred to the possibility of having a free vote. The parliamentary procedure for this must be thorough and proper. There are precedents for that.

I have had full experience of the democratic deficit. When I left government, I became more involved in planning issues. I referred to the great public interest in the proposal for 4.4 million houses. I made it my business to attend the county structure plan hearing and give evidence and to attend the regional planning guidance hearing and give evidence. I say to the Minister that the department made every possible effort to prevent me from appearing. I was not a statutory consultee, and the fact that I might have been Secretary of State for the Environment was neither here nor there, now that I was out of office. It instances the fact of the impossibility of public involvement in such things if even the Member of Parliament for a constituency in that region and that county—an MP with some previous ministerial responsibility—was not allowed to appear to give evidence at the inquiry.

I achieved my request at the third time of asking. A truth was brought home to me by that matter. I do not think that anyone should hold ministerial office in the environment department unless they have appeared at one of these undertakings. I recommended very strongly that they should do so. Given his legal background, I suspect that the Minister may have been concerned with one or two, but I doubt whether the Secretary of State has ever taken one. I wish that I had done so before I became the Minister responsible for the planning system.

First, I have to say that I am in favour of continual improvement. However, the regions, to which the Government referred, are not all the same. Trying to force the South West to become one region is not wise. The counties are all different. I would urge most strongly that the Government should look at introducing different arrangements for different parts of the country. They should invite different counties to look at how they might want to work together rather than try to impose on them the wartime structure which formed the regions.

Secondly, I do not believe that we should get rid of county structure plans, and certainly not for all those places which still have counties. If they have converted to unitary authorities, then that is another matter. However, at the moment the structure of local government varies in different parts of the country. It would be a great mistake to do away with those plans.

I should like to make one very violent complaint, one which reflects what I object to about some parts of this Government. I refer the House to page 58 of the Green Paper. It states that delegation to officers should be encouraged as far as possible. That is a good idea. However, the second sentence, states: To encourage this process we have set for 2002/03 a new target of delegation of 90‥ of decisions to officers, which will be monitored through Best Value". To nanny local government like that is an outrage and not the way to achieve any improvement.

I should like to make a final point which has been made by other noble Lords. I refer to a mistake that our government made and that the present Government have made. Any form of change is expensive, disruptive and interruptive of the system that is presently operating. Before one makes changes, one has to be jolly certain that they will be worth all the pain and disruption that such changes will bring. Personally, I believe that some of these changes need to be approached in a far more evolutionary way.

7.22 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I wish that the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, had won both slots for this debate. The Green Paper properly refers to the Cabinet Office Code of Practice on Consultation. One of the criteria in that is the question of feedback. Normally one sees a Green Paper followed by a White Paper, but rumours have been circulating, which I hope that the Minister can scotch, that the Government intend to go straight to legislation on this. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, remarked rather delicately, we need more time to reflect.

Who is planning for? I think that it is for everyone: for the applicant, for those immediately affected and for the whole community, because it is a public service. I was most taken by the analysis put forward by the Council for the Protection of Rural England which points out that we can describe it as "balancing" only if by that we mean integrating the needs and reconciling the differences of all those who have an interest; that is, the whole community and its component parts with their different demands. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, made the same point. It is certainly not a matter, for instance, of setting the environment against the economy.

Quality of place matters. I should declare an interest as president of the Town and Country Planning Association. In that role, I chaired some work which looked at the planning system. We called that work, "Your Place And Mine". Each of those four words is significant. Planning takes, or should take, a very positive and proactive role in achieving quality. I think that the Minister shares that view.

However, the system is not delivering perfectly. When I first stood for election 24 years ago, a point made to me on the doorstep was, "I'm OK, but where will my daughter live?". Now those daughters and sons are asking that question for themselves, especially in London and the South East. It is particularly true if they are teachers or work in the health service, if they drive buses or if they do any of the jobs that make our society and our economy function or, indeed, simply if they have a middle income. We have a housing and a labour crisis.

Planning alone will not provide housing that is affordable in any sense of the term but, to be frank, it has not done much to redirect those developers still producing large, executive-style housing rather than more modest homes. I fear that these reforms will not help that process either. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, cited examples of the development difficulties faced by farmers when they need to diversify; that reflects the same issue.

The answer to the question, "Does the Green Paper propose practical frameworks and processes which are necessary to achieve sustainable development?"—I may be wrong, but I believe that I am the first speaker to use that phrase in the course of our debate—is, "I think not". A great deal in it worries me. I believe that many of the current problems could be addressed without the need for wholesale reform, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, and other noble Lords. The perception is that reform is being led by the demands of business, but it is notable that that has not been a feature of this debate. The problems of business turn mainly on development control, as is the case in the housing field, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean.

We have been told of the financial constraints on local authorities which have led to a loss of planners. The Government's proposed solutions all seem to concern quantity rather than quality, but one of the quantities not referred to is, frankly, the quantity of dosh. I noted the comment made by the County Councils Network estimating that there is a deficit of over 2,000 years'-worth of professional experience and that the proposals contained in the Green Paper will cost £60 million a year. That may or may not be correct, but I am sure that the organisation is right to point to the issue.

Mention has been made of statutory consultees. If they are hit with the costs of response, I think that we should attend to their core funding rather than conferring on them "favoured nation status" as compared, for example, with residents.

Like other noble Lords, I am profoundly unhappy about the proposed levels of delegation. Local authorities should be able to set their own performance indicators, and in their capacity as local planning authorities, they should be able to set their targets in this area as well.

The issue of resources does not affect only the application stage. Yesterday I attended a meeting concerning Heathrow airport. The planning condition on the permission for T5 was mentioned—some 480,000 flights a year. That is a planning condition that would have to be enforced by the local planning authority. Does it have the means to carry out that kind of enforcement?

Remaining on cash issues, I am supportive of moves to ensure pre-application advice, but because I think that the Minister may have misunderstood me when we last debated this issue, I wish to put on the record that that is not to buy fast-track decisions. It is something which should be encouraged but, as I have said, it is not something to be bought.

Appeals and inquiry processes are also sources of frustration. The route to follow must be to build on EIPs in order to improve the procedure. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, that what we have at the moment favours deep pockets. When I chaired a development control committee in Richmond-upon-Thames, the most effective speakers were the individuals, not the members of the Bar who used up all their time with unnecessarily flowery language.

That point takes me neatly, although probably not that logically, to major infrastructure proposals. I agree with the analysis that problems would be rather fewer if the policy frameworks were in place. We have seen how inquiries can transform into a policy forum. But I am unhappy with the proposed solution. What applications would be affected? I, too, find the annex to the Green Paper difficult. As I read it, in some cases it addresses itself more to issues of health and safety than what is currently focused on in planning.

However, the overwhelming point to make is that unless and until Parliament becomes more effective in scrutinising the executive, I do not see how this could be adequate. Reference has been made to the issue of whipping, while the daughter paper discusses either a statutory instrument procedure or a power of designation. In practice, speaking as someone who on occasion has to debate statutory instruments, I do rot feel very different. Just how offensive would the detail following a parliamentary decision have to be in order for that decision to be overturned?

I believe that we need a debate on the spot on the big issues as well as the small. It must be accessible to the local community and to the local press, which forms an important part of the process and which locally has an important information role to play.

I have referred to "local"; but that is not to say that there should not be regional procedures—but not until we have elected regional government. I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, had to say about this, with the possible exception of his conclusion about where we should go with regard to regional government.

Much has been said about the position of the counties. The integration of land use, transport and resources is one of our goals, but will not removing the counties' structure planning powers but not their role in transport, waste and minerals hinder integration?

While I am referring to one authority which seems to be in danger of being sidelined, perhaps I should comment that another kind of planning authority—the national parks—seems to have been overlooked in much of the Green Paper.

As to community, I have said many times in this Chamber, as have many of your Lordships, that civic engagement, partnership, integration, and local diversity to fit local circumstances are our agenda. So "yes" to what involves community, including through the parishes, although I do not underestimate the difficulty of involving the community in achieving a truly plan-led process.

There are concerns about local development frameworks which are not map-based; they have to be spatial. To answer the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, different groups in the community will be involved in the proposed relationship between the framework and community statements, which we welcome.

But "no" to business planning zones. The proposals are crude; they do not allow the assessment of needs or merits and, crucially, they exclude the local community.

I plead with the Government to reconsider their opposition to all third party rights of appeal. I acknowledge that there could be difficulties if it were open to anyone to appeal on anything, but the Green Paper identifies limited circumstances in which people might apply, and then dismisses them. I believe that that is because of the difficulties of implementation rather than principle.

I have referred to the perception that this process is being driven by business. To discount all third party rights of appeal would simply confirm that those concerned with the quality of our areas and with the wider environment have a lower status in the Government's eyes. I am sure that that is not really the case.

The Mayor of London has been criticised by the Assembly which I chair for taking planning decisions in private. He explains that, in part, this is because he can get advice which he could not get publicly on how much benefit, for instance, affordable housing—it is not all bad—he can get, although that is not the verb he uses, out of a particular developer. Even he now agrees that there are some circumstances when a local authority determines its own applications which should be subject to third party rights of appeal.

To conclude my speech—but not the debate, which I am sure will continue—town and country planning has its roots in the progressive social movement. The aim now is to harness it to achieve sustainable development, a goal which I fear many of these proposals will not achieve.

7.33 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a local authority and as a member of its planning committee, on which I sit on a regular basis. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley. She has been lucky to draw the ticket for this debate. It has been excellent and has raised a number of important issue. It has demonstrated once again the amount of expertise in your Lordships' House which must at some stage be of benefit to the Minister in his considerations.

From the discussions we have had it is clear that no aspect of planning, its impact, law or regulation can be considered trivial or of no interest or significance to the public, particularly those who are affected by development. As the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said, there are good systems already available. They may need some adjustment but we must be careful that we do not throw out babies with bathwaters. There should not be too great a modernisation. Some areas of the planning laws which have survived since 1947 work well. They may need some minor tiller touching but not major change.

The proposals in the Green Paper will have varying impacts depending on whether they affect major national, commercial or large or small residential developments. There are mixed views about some of the proposed changes—for example, charging for initial planning advice; stopping twin tracking, of which I am much in favour; tightening up the timescales for appeals; the introduction of a planning check list—although, as with other aspects of the proposals, if that were to be introduced I would hope that it is the Government's intention for their model to be advisory and not mandatory, as each local authority area will have its own views on the important aspects that should be included on it.

I was fascinated by the proposal to ensure that local authorities open their planning meetings to the public. I thought that local authority planning committees had been open for at least the past 10 years. If that is not so, what have I been doing masquerading with the public around me for all that time? It is a proper aspiration. If it is not illegal at the moment to have closed meetings, as I thought it was, it is clear that planning committees should be open in the greater part in order that people can hear the discussions and observe what decisions are taken.

The intention to make planning a more attractive career is absolutely essential. Decisions will not be made against a proper background and a proper timescale if we do not recruit and train more planning officers. The noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, said that the shortage of suitably trained planning officers is one of the major reasons for delays in planning considerations.

That is a bad reason for delays in planning applications, but there are occasionally good ones. I note that it is proposed in the Green Paper to introduce varying timescales for the consideration of planning applications, with perhaps residential applications being shorter and business applications taking longer. It is right that some applications should take a longer time and some a shorter time, but sometimes not to rush a decision and allow consultation, and thereby breach the target time for consideration, can be a very good thing. In such cases, one ends up with a better development than if the application is rushed through in a very restricted time-scale.

One of the great areas of concern about which we have heard from a number of noble Lords—not only today but during the debate on local government some weeks ago—is the exclusion of county councils from involvement in structure plans. My noble friends Lord McGregor and Lord Bowness and a number of Liberal Democrat Peers have expressed their concerns about this. The Green Paper barely gives recognition to the importance of the counties. It merely comments that views would be welcome as to whether counties should have a role in assisting other tiers of local government to prepare their local development framework. That is fairly childish. The county councils have played a major role in planning for many years. If the proposals in the Green Paper go through, all they will be left with is a role in the waste and mineral disposal policies.

The real reason behind this was touched on in the Green Paper—that is, the Government's obsession with introducing regional government. It may be that by the time the Green Paper goes further the Government will have produced their proposals on the subject. But this can only come about as the result of a successful referendum—a matter on which the Government do not have a glorious record of achievement—for a regional assembly. So, even if it were to come about, it is not imminent.

A number of noble Lords have raised this question. There is a great reliance in the Green Paper on regional structures, but democratic regional structures are not there. It must be of concern that the upper layer of regional structures—which at the moment are county councils—might be removed from the system of structural planning and involvement in the local development frameworks in anticipation of legislation which has not yet come about. Does the Minister agree that if the referendum in a region were lost the counties would remain in order that there is some security of structure?

My noble friend Lady Anelay pointed out the importance of the responsibilities of county councils— not only in terms of their present controls over roads, schools and social services, which are important in relation to structure plans, but also in terms of their role in heritage strategies and archaeological matters.

It is inconceivable that regions stretching from Buckinghamshire to the Isle of Wight and from Kent to Hampshire will be able to decide issues for more than the most strategic part of planning and development control. They are far too remote and will be unable to get down to the nitty-gritty. It is clear that all those aspects would be better handled at a more local level.

I now turn to the subject of major developments, which has been discussed at some length. The proposals would seem to return us to the position that pertained in 1992; namely, the public Bills system, which was then abandoned. The proposals are something of a resurrection of what has gone before. There is a general acceptance and understanding that we cannot continue with a situation in which the Terminal 5 inquiry has taken eight years. But that was probably exceptional. In most cases, major developments do not take as long as that.

Real concerns are being expressed, not only in this Chamber but elsewhere, about the involvement of Parliament in such matters. It raises the "what?", "where?" and "why?" questions. What proposals would need to come before Parliament? How would they be decided by Parliament? How could we ensure that Members of Parliament knew the areas with which they were dealing? Where would decisions be taken for Wales and Scotland? Would they be taken in this Parliament or in Wales and Scotland?

Will the Minister explain at what stage consultation would take place? Would it take place after a decision had been taken by government that a development would be undertaken? How, for example, would a decision be taken as to where a power station was sited? Would there be consultation? Would there be a discussion on the criteria required for the development? At what stage would an initial decision to proceed be taken by Parliament? How would the views of the general public be made known to Members who would take those decisions? Would there be a whipping system? Would there he a free vote? How would the Government ensure that those involved in making the decision had the knowledge of and connection with the part of the country concerned? And how long would local communities and local authorities have to assemble and put forward a coherent and well-argued case both before the public inquiry and subsequently—which would be examining only the plans decided upon by Parliament?

All these questions need to be examined. This may be too early a stage, but there will be questions that we shall have to ask, and ask again. Indeed, we shall wait to know at some stage how the EU environmental assessment directive will be taken into account and the time-scales for that.

The voice of local people is an aspect on which the Green Paper waxes lyrical. It is extremely important that local people have a proper right to make their views known on so many issues. There is a great deal in the Green Paper to which I hope we shall return. I ask the Minister to answer the question that has been raised: is the next stage a White Paper—in which case shall we have a chance to comment in this Chamber—or, as has been rumoured, will the Government move directly to legislation?

7.44 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I join with noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for introducing this debate, which she obtained after winning the ballot. It has been extremely constructive. It indicates how important the topic is. The striking point has been the sense that there has not been enough time to debate all the issues.

Perhaps I may deal with a number of preliminary points. First, the Government have indicated their intention to make a policy statement before the Summer Recess about their response to the consultation. That policy statement will come before any legislation.

Secondly, perhaps I may take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, that, in making any change to the system, it is vital that there is clarity about the interim position, in effect to avoid the process of change freezing the making of decisions. We emphatically agree with that point. It is incumbent on the Government to be clear at each stage as to both the interim position and the proposals from that stage onwards, so that local authorities and developers know exactly where they stand. We shall take that point into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, raised with great eloquence and passion the matter of flooding. I entirely agree with her about the importance of flooding. She is right to identify the fact that the planning Green Paper does not refer to it. The reason is that the purpose of a Green Paper is not to deal with substantive policies in relation to planning but with how to make the system work better. Plainly, one of the things that the system should do is to deliver substantive policies more effectively, including policies in relation to planning. The noble Baroness will know that last year, in the light of the experience of recent years, the Government issued a guidance note about planning. I hope that she will agree that we have acted on the experience of previous years and have sought to reflect the importance of flooding as a proper and vital consideration in planning.

Perhaps I may make the same point to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in relation to leisure and sport. They are very important in relation to planning, and I entirely agree with the noble Baroness about their importance in regard to regeneration, enterprise and the economy generally. In regard to PPG 17 a draft proposal for change has already been published. In relation to PPG 15 and PPG 16, the planning Green Paper refers to proposals in relation to change. The noble Baroness's points in that respect were much more about substance than about the system, which is what the planning Green Paper is about.

The noble Lord, Lord Lea, made the important point that the planning system is dealing with different sorts of problems. On the one hand, there is the planning application which the local authority will deal with under the normal system; secondly, there is the major infrastructure project—of which there are very few—which we propose should be dealt with in a different way. I shall begin my remarks with reference to the first, more normal sort of application, and then deal separately with major infrastructure projects.

With the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, I detected broad agreement that change was required. There were disagreements about whether it should be fundamental change or radical change. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, said that the change was not radical enough. Some said that it was too radical. But there was widespread agreement on the need for change, as there was on the basic analysis of the problem in relation to the planning system.

Perhaps I should briefly describe the current planning system. There is national planning guidance, of which there are currently 852 pages. There is regional planning guidance, which is produced by a variety of different bodies throughout the regions. In some places, the process of public consultation works well. We have the evidence of the noble Lord, Lord King, that in others the process does not engage the public. If the MP cannot get in after three attempts, that does not suggest a system that is necessarily engaging the public effectively. Below regional planning guidance there are 74 unitary authorities; and there is a drop from the regional planning guidance straight to the unitary planning guidance. There are 39 structure plan places, 13 of which are produced by counties alone and 26 of which are produced by counties in combination either with a national park authority or with a unitary authority. Below the structure plan level, there should be local plans, which are produced by district. It is a complicated structure, with variable geometry, dependent entirely on the history of local government.

The system was set up in the early 1990s, 10 years after the current plan-led system was put in place. Some 45 local authorities—that is 13 per cent—are still to adopt their first plan and 214 current plans are becoming out of date, with little sign of early review. Under the present system, reviews of regional planning guidance, structure plans and local plans cannot be achieved in less than about 10 years and authorities estimate that one third of all applications are incomplete and 90 per cent of local authorities fail to achieve the target for deciding applications for planning permission.

That is the basic system. It works well in some places, but do not tell me that it is working well everywhere. One interesting aspect of the comments made to me before the planning Green Paper was that everyone, from business to community groups, residents and local authorities, was very keen for change.

Beside that there is the system of planning gain. Clear statements were made that the problem with the current system is the total lack of certainty and clarity. Some local authorities do a first-class job, pitching the planning gain that they should be asking for entirely correctly and getting benefit for their communities, but frequently a local authority does not ask for enough, in which case the community suffers by not getting adequate planning gain, or asks for too much, in which case the development does not go ahead and everybody suffers as a result. It was said that that was a result of the lack of certainty in the planning gain system.

The third strand is major infrastructure projects. Terminal 5 took from the early 1990s until not very long ago to get planning permission. I do not know whether any noble Lords had an opportunity to go to the Terminal 5 inquiry—I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, did. To say that it was a process of community engagement stretches credulity. There was a period when the residents had an adequate opportunity to put their point of view, but the other seven-and-a-half years or three-and-a-half years, or however long, was taken up with the big deep pockets funding very eloquent QCs to talk to each other about issues of commerce. The current system produces a totally rules-drive process. There are 852 pages of national planning guidance and QCs coming out of your ears in major planning inquiries and public inquiries on local issues or development plans. That system does not empower the local community and promote sustainable development. Instead, the moment a planning application of any significance is made, everybody reaches for the law books and the lawyers.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Hamwee, want to make the situation worse by introducing a third party right of appeal. That would result in an even more legally driven process. We have considered that important issue in detail. Those who support that proposal should consider the experience of Queensland in Australia, which introduced a third party right of appeal to empower third parties. Some years later, in 1997. another Act of Parliament had to be introduced to free local authorities from the consequences of a precedent-driven system, which meant that instead of being allowed to decide what was in the best interests of the communities, local authorities or local communities had to spend all their time perusing the decisions that had been made in the greatly expanded jurisprudence in relation to it.

There is a choice to be made. Do we want a more lawyer-driven process on planning or do we broadly want to simplify the system and free it from the constraints and the rules so that the community can engage more easily? In the planning Green Paper, we have gone for the route of simplification and trying to release the system from the current rules process. We do that by saying first that national planning guidance should be shorter, simpler and more focused. Secondly, the county structure plan tier, which causes room for confusion, should be removed. There should be regional planning and district planning. The district plan will deal with most local development control decisions because it is the one closest to the people who will be most affected. They should make most of the decisions.

In some cases it is plain that the leap from region to district is much too large. Those who have suggested that it is too large in the South West and the South East are plainly right. However, we have to ask whether the county is the right administrative district in which to intermediate between region and district. In some places, it might well be. The obvious example is Cornwall, which is a clear grouping that, for a variety of reasons, stands as a sub-region on its own. However, in the vast majority of cases the county will not be the correct administrative sub-region.

I have had a number of constructive conversations with the LGA and the County Councils Network. When we talk about the benefits of structure planning, the most common examples are based not on individual counties but on sub-regions that cross over county boundaries. For example, Cambridge raises many acute planning issues. The surrounding area is not restricted to Cambridgeshire but includes neighbouring counties. Gatwick Airport is another example that gives rise to a lot of structural and strategic planning issues. Plainly, responsibility for those strategic issues should spread beyond the county boundaries and should not be dealt with by just West Sussex.

The County Councils Network and the LGA have reservations about the proposal but they broadly accept that the time of the structure plan has gone. They propose that the counties should have a very important role in supporting regional and sub-regional planning and in helping to draw up the local development framework. They sensibly take the view that the structure plan is frequently not the best way forward. I do not necessarily agree with all their proposals, but I think that they are sensible to accept that the time for the structure plan has gone and that we now have to look at ways that give effect to the importance of regions in planning, the importance of identifying the sub-region and the importance of capturing the expertise that counties have in contributing to the new planning system.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I get the sense that the Minister is continually trying to come back to driving the system into a uniform framework for the whole country. Is there not an argument for diversity and for much greater involvement of local decision-making in seeing what is most appropriate to the area concerned? In passing, I note that it sounded as though we were recreating Avon and Humberside.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, I thought that I was doing precisely what he would wish. I thoroughly support the idea of diverse decision-making. The discussions on the planning Green Paper gave the strong message that different considerations should apply in different regions. Different structures and different policies might well apply. The most obvious example can be seen in relation to housing. The problem in many parts of the North East and North West is low demand and abandonment of housing. The problem in most parts of the South East and South West is entirely the reverse.

We need a regional framework in terms of both policy and the relationship between regional bodies and the bodies below them. We are therefore seeking to deliver that which the noble Lord, Lord King, seeks—the necessary diversity and structures to reflect the problems facing different parts of the country. We are trying to deliver that which he thinks is appropriate.

I move from the basic structure to the planning gain point. The difficulty with a planning gain policy which is applied differentially across the country and leads to uncertainty about outcome is that there will be either delay, lack of gain or a complete choking-off of development. However, I do not accept that the merit system is a tax. Although planning gain itself involves the developer's payment of money or a particular benefit to the community, no one calls that a tax. The merit system is simply a method of seeking to identify what should be paid in a much more certain way.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, mentioned a number of developments in the tariff proposal. I do not disagree with any of the reservations he mentioned and I do not think that any of them are inconsistent with anything said in the planning Green Paper. Although it is an important issue which has created considerable controversy, it has made it possible for the community to gain appropriate benefits from sustainable development.

The noble Lords, Lord MacGregor and Lord King, said that there is a critical need to develop proper parliamentary procedure in the consideration of major infrastructure projects. There is no point in my rehearsing the problems with the type of inquiry used in relation to Terminal 5 and Sizewell B. However, as the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, rightly said, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, among other projects, provides a different precedent.

The Channel Tunnel Rail Link was a major planning issue and was supported by the then Conservative government. As I understand it, however, votes on the issue were not whipped and the proposal was approved with considerable majorities. Although it is a matter for Parliament, I do not think that it would be appropriate for parliamentary procedure in relation to such important matters to be whipped. I also agree that it would be wholly inappropriate for such matters to be dealt with in a one-hour debate in each House before they are approved. We need to develop a procedure that allows proper consideration of the issues.

However, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link case seems to establish perfectly satisfactorily that Parliament is both willing and able to deal with the issues involved in such major infrastructure projects. Although those projects are very few and far between, surely it must be better for Parliament to be involved in deciding them than to continue with the current procedure. The current procedure operates as follows. In the case of Terminal 5, for example, an application for planning permission was made to the London borough of Hillingdon, as per usual. Understandably, the application was called in by the Secretary of State. There was then a planning inquiry of the type we have discussed. Thereafter, not only did the Secretary of State not refer the matter to Parliament but, because he had a quasi-judicial role, he had to operate at arm's length when making the decision.

If we can develop a parliamentary procedure that allows both proper consideration of the issues and the community involved to express its view, then the nation's superior democratic body should be able to decide the very few cases—national issues —such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Terminals 4 and 5 and Sizewell B. Our proposals contain such a framework.

There is not, as my noble friend Lady Dean said, agreement on all the details, but we are utterly determined to make the planning system work so that it delivers sustainable development and earns the confidence of the community. We shall certainly listen to what has been said today. I hope that I have explained our basic thought on the issues. I suspect that the devil will be in the detail, but we shall listen carefully to what is being said.

Lord Renton

My Lords, may I quickly ask—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, we really do not have time for interventions.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this is a timed debate, and time is up.

8.5 p.m.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend the Minister for replying so comprehensively, and in his own inimitable and well-respected fashion, to our debate. I also thank all noble Lords for their thoughtful and expert contributions. I, too, look forward to our continuing discussions on planning. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.